How to Cook in a Hostel

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Dundee Backpackers in Dundee, Scotland

One of my favorite things about traveling is the food. After picking a destination, and maybe plotting out a few major points of interest, the next thing I do is search for the best restaurants, holes in the wall, and street vendors to visit.

While I love trying local specialties and grabbing meals around a new city, eating out can quickly add up and strain your travel budget. If you’re staying at a hostel, you’ve got the opportunity to cook for yourself and save your hard earned money for other things.

Through my travels, and the various trials and errors they have entailed, I’ve learned a few tricks for making the best of hostel kitchens, no matter how shabby or under stocked:

Take Stock of the Kitchen

Before you ever make a grocery list or plan a time to cook, visit the kitchen and see what you’re working with. Check out what appliances, cookware, and tools are at your disposal. I’ve seen everything from well equipped kitchens featuring several ovens and stovetops, to a hostel that only had a single hot plate. While you’re there, see if your hostel provides a “Free Food” cabinet. Many hostel goers buy too much and leave behind their leftovers. This means you can sometimes find a wealth of staples like rice, pasta, oils, vinegars, and spices for free.

Shop with the Locals

Take notice of where the locals shop. Avoid the convenience stores usually found near tourist districts because of their lack of variety and high prices. Instead visit farmers’ markets and local grocery stores to do your shopping. One of the fun things when visiting another country is seeing all the foreign (to you) foods available. Plus if you’re choosing to cook a local specialty, you’ll have no trouble finding all the ingredients.

Avoid Peak Times

Even during off seasons, hostels can be packed with fellow travelers. This means the kitchen area will likely be full during peak eating hours around lunch and dinner. If you can, try and cook a little before or after regular mealtimes. Though cooking side-by-side with other hostel-goers can be a great way to get a conversation going, you might save yourself some time (and stress) by choosing your timing wisely.

Add Some Spice to Your Life

There’s no better way to quickly improve a meal than by adding a hearty dose of spices. Here are a few simple solutions to avoid overloading your backpack with spice bottles while still creating tasty meals:

  • Base your meal choices around the spices available in your hostel’s free pantry. This can lead to some really creative recipe creation.
  • Buy one or two spice blends (cajun, Italian, lemon-pepper, etc.) to just sprinkle on each meal for a serious flavor boost. This works best if you’re traveling for a week or less, so you don’t get tired of the recurring flavors.
  • If you know you’ll always want certain spices on hand, your best bet is to pack your favorites in a travels spice container like this one.

Keep It Simple

Nobody expects you to make a luxurious five-star meal at your hostel. If that’s your thing, more power to you. But I like to stick with simple “recipes” that require little ingredients. Since I’m usually cooking for myself and Peter, and we don’t mind leftovers, most of the meals I cook makes about four servings. If you’re traveling solo, make sure you only buy how much you need for your stay. Some of my favorite simple hostel recipes include:

  • Creamy Lentil Curry: Cook red lentils in coconut milk, vegetable broth, and curry powder. Top with chopped pineapple and cilantro.
  • Shroom Pasta: Cook pasta. Sauté a chopped onion and a few handfuls of mushroom in olive oil. Toss with pasta and sprinkle with red pepper and nutritional yeast.
  • Hearty Soup: In a large pot sauté a chopped onion in olive oil. Add a can of diced tomatoes and a can of white beans. Add a chopped potato or any desired veggies you have on hand. Pour in enough vegetable broth to cover everything and simmer until veggies are tender.
  • Super Spuds: Poke a few holes in a russet potato. Microwave for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Top with a handful of spinach and chopped green onions. Dollop on salsa and guacamole before serving.

Land of Ooo Macaroni Salad

One of my favorite television shows, Adventure Time is a wacky ride of funny characters, sometimes heart-wrenching storyline, and food. Lots of food. It’s hard to go through an episode without watching a character make a sandwich, share some spaghetti, or feed their loved one a bowl of soup.

My latest recipe inspiration takes place in “Ocarina” episode 12 of season 6. Jake the dog is celebrating his pups’ birthdays, but they’re all disappointed when arrives with no presents and a small amount of macaroni salad.

Although the pups were disappointed with Jake’s beige take on this carb-centric dish, I’m sure they would have been thrilled with this recipe. I pepped it up a bit by adding heavy-hitters when it comes to flavor like salty olives, sweet roasted red peppers, and tangy pickles. The dressing, although vegan-mayo based, isn’t too heavy and allows the whole dish to be cohesive instead of a gloopy mess.

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Although it’s tempting to eat it straight out of the mixing bowl, this recipe really shines when you let it fully sit overnight. Everything melds together to create a dish that you’d be proud to bring to your next birthday party.

Adventure Time Macaroni Salad

Serves 10 as a side

Ingredients

  • 1 lbs. macaroni pasta
  • 1 15.5 oz. can black olives, drained and sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill pickles
  • 1/3 cup sliced green onions (both white and green parts)
  • 1/2 cup vegan mayonnaise (such as Vegenaise)
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon agave nectar
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

Directions

  1. Cook macaroni according to package’s directions.
  2. Once cooked, drain the pasta and rinse with cold water until cool.
  3. Combine in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients. Mix well.
  4. Set in the fridge to chill and for flavors to meld for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.  

Nutrition per serving:
Calories: 283 Fat: 14g Saturated Fat: 0.5g Protein: 5g Carbohydrates: 30g Sugars: 2.5g

Honeymoon – Tucson

Tucson was my favorite city of the trip, and I’d happily move there if given the opportunity. It has a really relaxed vibe and is just the right size for walking around, plus it has a large amount of entertaining activities and amazing food. An added bonus is there’s a large eco-friendly movement there, which makes it no surprise that they have a 100% solar powered indie book store (which has a pretty rad reading selection).

We stayed at University Inn, which was a decent hotel in the middle of everything. Really close to the school campus and within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see.    Our first morning in Tucson we got an early start and headed towards the University of Arizona. We walked through several neighborhoods to get there, admiring the brightly colored houses, and we also happened upon a small bird in a cactus! He seemed quite happy there, so we let him be.   We arrived at the University of Arizona Art Museum just in time to see exhibits of all the graduating art students’ work. I really really loved everything we saw, plus it was free for those with students IDs. Below are photos of just a few of my favorite pieces.    After the museum we marched around campus a bit more before walking to the Tucson Tamale Company. I didn’t get any pictures worth posting (really poor lighting), but the food was fantastic. We both got the two tamale plate with two sides. The sides weren’t awe-inspiring, but the tamales were delicious. 

There was a huge variety of vegetarian and vegan flavors, so after much himming and hawwing I settled with the new delhi (Indian inspired with a filling similar to a samosa) and the vegan blue (blue corn masa with squash, onions, tomatoes, and chiles). Peter got the chile relleno (roasted green chiles and red bell peppers with cheese) and wisconsin (just lots and lots of cheese). 

The best part was that just as I was joking about how good these corn tamales were and that it was probably due to them being GMOs, the manager came by and asked how everything was. As we were discussing the nice variety of veggie-friendly food, she said “And everything is GMO-free too!” Which just made me love the place even more.

After a filling lunch, we walked around the downtown area before heading to the Loft, a non-profit indie movie theatre with a nice mix of newer releases and old classics. We ended up seeing Welcome to Me, a funny yet slightly melancholy film that was a good way to get us out of the afternoon sun.

We went back to the hotel for a swim before walking just a block to get dinner at Zemam’s Too, an Ethiopian restaurant. Neither of us had ever eaten Ethiopian before, but Happy Cow reviewers had wonderful things to say about Zemam’s. We got two veggie samplers and in doing so basically tried every vegan dish on the menu. 

I was worried Peter wouldn’t like it (he’s not big into spicy food) but he loved it and ate the collards so fast that I barely got a sample in before they disappeared. I also enjoyed the atmosphere of the place, which was located in a renovated house, and felt almost like I was eating dinner on a friend’s patio. Since this amazing food encounter, I now have a strong love for Ethiopian food and have been trying to perfect a homemade injera bread to accompany lentils and such.
  The next day we wandered through what I mentally deemed the “hipster district” of 4th Avenue which held loads of cafes, crafty areas, book stores, and head shops. The area had plenty of things to see and several pieces of functional art (newspaper holder, bike rack, etc.) to admire. 

We had lunch at La Indita, a Mexican restaurant with a Native American twist as a nod to the owner’s heritage. The server was great about knowing what was available vegan and I got a veggie plate which featured an enchilada, tostada, beans, and rice. Peter got something cheese filled that I can’t remember the name of. Both plates were very tasty and the red sauce was more vinegar-y tasting than most Mexican restaurants I’ve been to, which was a nice change. This combination of cultures was a tasty experience and one you should seek out on 4th Avenue.    D&D Pinball was definitely the highlight of our Tucson trip. It was a small room crammed to the gills with pinball machines. The machines ranged from pretty old (Monster from the Black Lagoon) to fairly new (The Walking Dead). We went there only planning to stay an hour, but ended up playing for nearly two!     I discovered a hidden talent for pinball and had a great time trying out all the different types. My personal favorite was a medieval game that when you scored high enough it would drop the drawbridge to the castle so you could attempt to hit a ball into it.           Since the majority of our trip was spent running around in t-shirts and jeans, we decided to have a “fancy” night out at a nice restaurant and the local theatre. Dinner was at The Tasteful Kitchen, an all-vegetarian restaurant with a ton of vegan and gluten-free options. 

Our waiter convinced us to get the pepper poppers as an appetizer. They were cashew cheese stuffed jalapeños and sweet peppers with a tangy dipping sauce. These were so good that I had to stop Peter from chewing on the leftover stems to “get all the flavor out”.

 I can’t remember the particular name of this dish (they have a rotating seasonal menu and it has already changed), but it was fried eggplant medallions with marinara sauce and arugula, accompanied by a smear of basil pesto. Eggplant has the tendency to sometimes get spongey and heavy when fried, but these medallions were perfectly seasoned and fairly light feeling.

I apparently blacked out and forgot to photograph Peter’s dish, but he had zucchini noodles with basil pesto, fresh vegetables, and gnocchi.  We packed up half of our entrees to-go to make room for shared dessert, strawberry cashew cheesecake with chocolate drizzle. The Tasteful Kitchen sure does know how to cook with cashews. The sweet cheesecake was nicely complimented by the bitter dark chocolate sauce and was the perfect way to end our fancy pants meal.After dinner entertainment was at the Rogue Theatre. We saw Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and I was expecting just a decent performance due to both a lack of love for Shakespeare and previous crappy experiences with well-touted theatre. I’m happy to say pessimistic me was wrong and the whole production blew our socks off.

The acting was spot-on, costumes were impeccable, and the set really immersed you in the story. If I lived in Tucson, I would definitely become a member of the Rogue Theatre to have guaranteed good tickets to all the new shows.

    I was sad to bid Tucson farewell because we had such a fantastic time there. Hopefully we’ll be back soon or even living there someday!

Ponyo Ham Ramen (Vegan MoFo #5)

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Ending a rough Monday with an easy and tasty meal is ideal, so today I relied upon a dish coveted by many college students: ramen. A Disney film that features this is Ponyo, a light-hearted Studio Ghibli movie that focuses on a friendship and fish.

Ponyo starts as a cute little fish-girl living with her alchemist father under the sea. Her curiosity is never ending and because of this she loves visiting the human world. As Ponyo keeps interacting with humans, especially her new friend Sosuke, she evolves into an adorable little person. The problems arise when she risks becoming too human, and her father tries to return her to the sea.

Despite all this, Ponyo is always one to have a good time. Especially when it involves ham. Throughout the film she is fed ham at various times and is usually followed by her screaming “HAAAMM!” enthusiastically. It’s quite adorable, and inspired me to try an oddly tasty food combination from the film: ham and ramen.

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The following recipe might be a bit on the spicy side for some, so adjust the sriracha as needed. I skipped making a mock hard boiled egg, but if you prefer one for authenticity’s sake then Meet the Shannons has a good recipe.

Ponyo Ramen

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz. uncooked ramen noodles
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon agave nectar
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 4 pieces of vegan ham (I used Yves brand)

Directions:

  1. In a pot mix the vegetable broth, sesame oil, agave, soy sauce, and sriracha. Bring to a boil and stir in the ramen noodles. Cook for 3 minutes, then set aside for 5 minute.
  2. Place each serving in a bowl and top with green onions and ham. Serve while watching this whimsical movie!

Nutrition per serving:
Calories: 324 Fat: 4.7g Saturated Fat: 0.7g Protein: 15g Carbohydrates: 55g Sugars: 10.7g